FRESNO, Calif. -- The Save Mart Center stands at the edge of the sprawling campus of Fresno State, a towering reminder of how a farm town in California's Central Valley is fighting back at an inferiority complex that for years said Fresno wasn't good enough.
Long known as the world's breadbasket for the volume of produce and tree nuts grown in the fertile valley soil, greater Fresno has rocketed into a diverse cultural hub for a county with more than 1 million people.
The arena was built by the hype fueled by Fresno State's former hoops coach Jerry Tarkanian, an alumnus. It was home to NBA star Paul George and the Miami Heat's Tyler Johnson during their collegiate careers. And other recent Fresno State alumni include the New York Yankees' Aaron Judge, the Oakland Raiders' Derek Carr and the Green Bay Packers' Davante Adams.
The moments they each provided Fresno State's Red Wave fan base have inspired the region to dream big and aim high. And there will be another moment in sports here Saturday night, putting this Central Valley city on the international stage.
This will be the first boxing title fight between two Filipino fighters in 93 years. And while the actual boxers are relevant -- Jerwin Ancajas looks to defend his IBF junior bantamweight world title against Jonas Sultan in the main event (Saturday at 9:30 p.m. ET on ESPN+) -- choosing the place of the fight was no accident.
Two Filipinos fighting for a title. In Fresno, California.
Neither fighter had ever been to Fresno. It is the organizers who hope to attract some of the estimated 3.5 million Filipinos in the state, many who live in the Bay Area and Southern California. Fresno sits strategically in the middle, almost equidistant from San Francisco and Los Angeles, each about a three-hour drive away.
"They're big fight fans. They mirror the Mexican-American community in terms of their love for boxing. And, of course, having a world champion like Manny Pacquiao ups the profile with the Filipino pride that Manny has brought to the sport." Al Perez, a Fresno-area promoter for the event, on Filipino-Americans and boxing
As the fifth-largest city in the most populous state in America, Fresno is hoping to leverage the international spotlight the way it did in November, when nearly 14,000 fans showed up at the same arena for a card headlined by local favorite Jose Ramirez, who has since won a super lightweight world title of his own.
This is Fresno -- a city too large to be ignored, yet small enough to feel like everyone knows someone in common. And that's where the fiercely loyal support for locals comes from. Each Ramirez, Judge, Carr or George serves as a point of pride for residents the same way hosting a title fight, major musician or comedian does.
On Saturday night alone, while the title fight takes place on the north side of town, Broadway and TV star Audra McDonald, another Fresno native, will be performing downtown. Last weekend, a two-day, outdoor music festival at Woodward Park featured Snoop Dogg, Nas and more than 20 other acts. The question used to be, "What is there to do in Fresno?" Now the question is, "How much can we fit in?" And the city is within about an hour's drive of three of the most beautiful national parks -- Yosemite, Kings Canyon and Sequoia.
Al Perez, a Fresno-area promoter for the event, said Saturday's card is an opportunity for fans, especially those in the Filipino community, to come support Ancajas and Sultan and to be part of history.
"They're big fight fans," Perez said of Filipino-Americans. "They mirror the Mexican-American community in terms of their love for boxing. And, of course, having a world champion like Manny Pacquiao ups the profile with the Filipino pride that Manny has brought to the sport."
Perez traveled with his adviser, Titus Verzosa, a lifetime member of the Filipino American Association of Fresno & Vicinity, on a grassroots tour to spread word about the fight at grocery stores, restaurants and in the nearby farming community of Delano, which has a sizable Filipino-American population.
Pacquiao himself is urging fans to be part of the lore. In a video posted last week by Ancajas' camp, Pacquiao told fans it's a "once-in-a-lifetime" chance. The last such bout between Filipinos took place on May 2, 1925, when Pancho Villa defended the world flyweight title against Clever Sencio in Manila.
"My mom is 90, so even she couldn't have seen the previous fight," Verzosa said. "So it is a once-in-a-lifetime event."
As it stands, there's another Filipino vs. Filipino title fight planned on Aug. 18 in Cebu, Philippines, featuring Donnie Nietes and Aston Palicte, but the opportunity and rarity of Saturday's fight being on American soil adds to the pageantry and may not happen again anytime soon.
And Cebu is about 7,100 miles from Fresno.
It's the U.S. debut for the challenger Sultan, and just the second U.S. fight for Ancajas (27-1-1), who delivered a 10th-round knockout in February to Mexico's Israel Gonzalez in Corpus Christi, Texas, for his 15th consecutive win (14 by knockouts). Sultan (14-3) is ranked No. 1 by the International Boxing Federation and is coming off his biggest victory, a knockout of John Riel Casimero on Sept. 16 in Cebu.
"This is an historical fight for every Filipino out there," said Michael Aldeguer, president and CEO of the Ala Promotions team backing Sultan. "To be here in the U.S., in the boxing mecca of the world, and to showcase our fighters on the world stage, this is it. They have to be inspired to be part of history. I hope Filipinos realize that and come Saturday so they can say, 'I was there watching the first Filipino title fight in 93 years.'"
Why has a matchup like this not happened sooner? According to Aldeguer, it wasn't for a lack of talent -- it was by design and promotion. In the past, promoters avoided putting two Filipinos against each other, preferring instead to craft fights between boxers from different countries.
"I think the market has matured," Aldeguer said.
"They've seen how Mexican boxing has grown, and now they've accepted it. Whoever wins, we still have the belt in our country, so I think now the people have accepted it, people are into it, and they see the significance of the fight."
Verzosa, the local adviser, has been helping Perez by posting on social media, attending events and telling every Filipino-American he knows in the Fresno area about the cultural significance of the fight. He said the local Filipino-American community is made up of all types of hardworking professionals. He remembered a 2008 visit when then-Philippines president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo came to Fresno. He compares the hype around Saturday's fight to that presidential visit.
For added local flavor, Verzosa recommended 17-year-old Nathan Fasching, a Fresno resident of Filipino descent, to sing the national anthem. Top Rank requested videos of the singer and selected him to perform.
The Save Mart Center is one of the largest on-campus arenas in the western U.S. Organizers have arranged for the arena to be a more intimate setting Saturday, with about 4,000 fans expected.
Now, with the fighting success of Ramirez, who also attended Fresno State for a time, the Save Mart Center is becoming a go-to venue for professional boxing as well. Ramirez captured the hearts of the region with his savvy, timely "Fight for Water" card that highlighted the agricultural challenges created by the drought in Fresno and the surrounding valley. He will produce the first defense of his title at the arena on July 7.
The Save Mart Center does not have the history of Madison Square Garden. Fresno does not have the glamour of the Las Vegas Strip, and the fight doesn't carry the same cachet as the "Thrilla in Manila."
But, Saturday's event is generations in the making -- a bout in which two Filipinos, an ocean and multiple time zones away from home, fought in Fresno for a world title belt.
"My goal is to entertain the crowd," Ancajas said. "Not only for history, but for my fans and the Filipino community to enjoy this fight."
Eddie Hughes is a lifelong Fresno-area resident who has been writing about sports and other community-related topics for the past 13 years. He serves as the senior editor for Fresno State Magazine.